The Colombian Hipsters Who Are Erasing a Chapter of Black History

The Colombian Hipsters Who Are Erasing a Chapter of Black History

Why you should care

Because there is no such thing as Black History Month in Colombia.

Generations collide in the neighborhood at the edge of the park. At one end, a well-preserved colonial building houses a trendy Spanish tapas joint and bungalow-style apartments, where a stern-looking doorman greets and screens visitors. At the other corner, locals and hipsters fill rustic bars, swilling beer while downtrodden prostitutes who can’t find work in the wealthier part of the city try their luck with backpacking gringos.

Nearby, blacksmiths and shoemakers continue the work their ancestors — the area’s first inhabitants — started shortly after they arrived against their will as part of a Spanish fleet searching for wealth in the New World. It’s a common story in the Americas, a time line marked by the Slave Rebellion in Haiti and the American Civil War, but this particular piece of the past remains largely hidden in a locale known more today for its bohemian feel than its sordid history of slavery.

Historical accounts don’t separate chapters by race — a tradition dating back to the city’s integration.

Getsemaní is a neighborhood in Cartagena, a walled city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast first built to thwart invaders that later became a blue-collar hub shortly after the Spanish arrived in 1533. Slaves set up shop here to make shoes, build furniture and generally do their white owners’ bidding. By the late 1700s, Blacks began working in whites’ homes and, in some cases, on the streets as prostitutes. In 1811, Cartagena declared independence from Spain, thanks to Blacks and whites working together. While it wasn’t officially abolished until 1851, slavery, and the city’s history of servitude, soon melted into oblivion with increased emancipation and integration efforts.

Davinson Gaviria, 36, a descendant of the slaves, does his best to discuss his family’s past — but knows that it’s now little more than a muddled oral history. But Gaviria, born with his left eye closed and no medical help to fix it, can offer more insight than most about the history of his changing neighborhood. Today, in Getsemaní’s Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad, people gather to socialize — beer drinking is forbidden in the plaza — play soccer and pray in the cathedral. History books often credit the plaza as the locale where slaves made their cry for independence, a smaller-scale version of the rebellion that chased many of the French from Haiti in the early 1800s. But Gaviria — whom some call “mayor” for his love and knowledge of the local area — says that’s wrong: Slaves, including his ancestors, organized their protest farther south in Plaza del Pozo, he says.

Nor does history credit the slaves who died while building the city’s iconic fortifications. “A lot of slaves died building [the wall],” Gaviria says, estimating that the figure reaches into the thousands, despite there being no written records of the fatalities. In Getsemaní: Historia, Patrimonio y Bienestar Social en Cartagena, authors Rosa A. Diaz de Paniagua and Raúl Paniagua Bedoya confirm that slaves built the walls around El Centro and Getsemaní, but say nothing about those who died during construction. Sadly, such an overlooking of brutal Black history is not uncommon in Colombia, says Andres Rodriguez Pizarro, a member of the local historical society. This, he says, is because historical accounts don’t separate chapters by race — a tradition dating back to the city’s integration.

Still, plenty of sources manage to describe famous whites — like Pedro de Heredia — who played a role in the city’s history. They also describe attempts by the French to seize Cartagena, which led to the building of the wall and the fortress that overlooks the beautiful port. Gaviria wishes there were more details about his ancestors and slavery’s past in the region, but today he faces a bigger challenge: trying to preserve the few memories that remain. Thanks to redevelopment and the selling of local properties for millions, the future is uncertain for the descendants of slaves in Getsemaní. Do they cash in and move to cheaper locations farther away, leaving the barrio vulnerable to even more development, hipsters and, eventually, expat retirees? Or do they fight to stay, continuing the traditions that began with their ancestors’ arrival, despite the modern revamp? Gaviria, for one, has no plans to leave, even though he’s increasingly faced with unfamiliar surroundings.

In the evening, across from the Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad, foreigners and well-to-do Colombians fill a trendy bar called Demente. They talk and laugh, ordering from menus that sport Miami-like prices, capturing many moments with their smartphones and fancy cameras — all the while recording a whole new history for Getsemaní.

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